“You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.” –Tom Wolfe
I have always maintained that my favorite fashion accessory is a book. For myself–and I am sure billions of others throughout history–books have proven a defining force in my life, undoubtedly inspiring my foray into the field of fashion history. And yet, while I have many times pondered “Where would I be without literature?,” I have never really taken the time to ask: “Where would fashion be without literature?” A question posed by one of Dame Fashion’s most colorful personalities, the incomparable Diana Vreeland, in her memoirs D.V.. and aptly quoted by author Terry Newman in the beginning of her new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore (Harper Collins, 2017).
To say I have not considered the relationship between fashion and literature is not entirely true. No fashion historian’s education is complete without a study of Marcel Proust’s seminal work À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927). Not only is his 3000 page, seven-volume masterpiece widely acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of all time, it is also an invaluable resource for early twentieth-century fashion. In this stunning feat of storytelling, fashion plays a central role in the lives of vividly portrayed characters, many of whom are inspired by real-life men and women. The character Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes, for instance, is famously based on Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe (1860–1952), whose indelible fashion sense and exquisite collection of extant clothing were recently the subject of an exhibition at The Museum at FIT. Newman reminds us, however, that Proust was not a mere observer and recorder of the fashionable life, but an active participant: “Proust was a belle époque dandy who wore beautifully laundered white gloves and a cattleya orchid boutonniere, an extravagance purchased daily from the expensive Parisian florist Lauchaume on Rue Royal.”
To relate Proust and fashion makes perfect sense. And there are other authors such as Oscar Wilde, Colette and Tom Wolfe who are synonymous with their indelible sense of personal style. But to consider the importance of clothing to Sylvia Platt? David Foster Wallace? Gertrude Stein? Newman’s book is a revelation in more ways then one, taking the reader on a fascinating sartorial journey where she asks us to reconsider our favorite authors within the context of, not only the pivotal role clothing has played in their written work, but what they themselves wore. “More often than not, they wore their hearts and words on their sleeves,” Newman writes.
The book alternates brief thematic groupings of “Signature Looks” (authors associated with glasses, suits, hair and hats) with more in-depth chapters dedicated to individual authors. While each chapter is punctuated with excerpts from the author’s famous poems, novels or articles in which clothing has played a role, the highlights for myself were the fascinating anecdotes and insights into each author’s personal relationship to clothing. For instance, James Joyce, suffering from iritis and glaucoma in his old age, took to writing in a white suit, believing it helped to reflect the words he wrote on the page. Virginia Wolfe was a writer for British Vogue in the 1920s and was fascinated by clothing: “I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write,” she wrote in The Diary of Virginia Woolf in 1925, “My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love; & what it is I must discover.”
While Newman reveals that some authors are indeed “fashionable” in the clothing they wore/wear–Zadie Smith made Vanity Fair‘s 2016 International Best-Dressed List– most, like Smith herself, have created an enduring style beyond the confines of the new, luxurious and “in” to create a look entirely their own. “You will always be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself,” wrote the incomparable Maya Angelou in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993). They are words which echo the great Oscar Wilde who wrote in An Ideal Husband (1895): “Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.” Wilde saw fashion as a “form of ugliness” and he thwarted it by instead evoking a romanticized, bygone era with ensembles that included velvet blazers and capes, silk stockings and breeches. As a member of the Rational Dress Society, Wilde promoted beautiful and practical clothing that, for women in particular, rejected the rigid structures of the corset and bustle.
I was not in the least surprised to learn that the trail-blazing Gertrude Stein also rejected the corset as early as the 1890s when she attended college. The definition of a modern woman, Stein was a distinguished writer in her own right, in addition to being one of history’s most important art patrons and collectors. Her and her brother’s early twentieth-century Parisian salon championed the avant-garde and brought together the brightest and most influential of artists and writers such as Picasso (whom she claims to have discovered), Matisse and Hemingway. While I was aware of Stein’s influence and many enthralling relationships–the love story between herself and her life-partner Alice B. Toklas alone!– I was not in the least expecting to learn about Stein’s relationship to fashion. Not only was Stein’s understated wardrobe deceptively fashion-conscious, it also turns out it was Pierre Balmain haute couture!
As Newman reveals in her book, Stein and Toklas were not only some of the first patrons of haute couturier Balmain, they were also his dear friends. And while Newman only briefly touches on this compelling relationship, I just had to know more…
A digitized manuscript collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library lays bare a close friendship between Balmain and Stein, with letters from the designer to his “Cheri” over the five year period before Stein’s death. Stein, Toklas and Balmain met around 1940 during WWII in Aix-les-Bains where a then-unknown Balmain made blouses for his mother’s dress shop. It was not long after their introduction that he began custom-making the couple’s wardrobes. “My dear Gertrude,” begins a letter dated December 20, 1944, “I have seen in life some pictures of you and Alice and was proud to see that the two of you wore Balmain’s clothes–my mother must have said to you that I shall have next Spring my own dress shop.” Not only were Stein and Toklas front-row at the designer’s first fashion show in October of 1945, they were among the only people attending privileged enough to be wearing his work!
Stein’s unique relationship to Balmain –and her sincere appreciation for his clothing–is immortalized in a series of photographs commissioned for Vogue magazine in 1946 by contributor Rosamond Bernier (glimpsed below at right with illustrator Eric) and photographed by Horst P. Horst, two of which I have featured here. In the first image, the 5’1″ Stein’s presence is apt. Surrounded on both sides by her valuable Cubist art and starring straight at the camera, she cuts a striking, stoic figure in her brown velvet Balmain suit. Amazingly, the suit survives in the collection of the V&A London (shown above but more information found here.) The second photograph is perhaps the most well-known and captures a joyful Stein doing what she does best: admiring art. When considered within the context of her love for and patronage of art, Stein’s revelry in Balmain’s finely-made clothing makes perfect sense. To truly appreciate beauty, is to appreciate it in all its forms.
In conclusion, Newman’s book is a fascinatingly fresh take on an under-appreciated relationship, revealing a new perspective of the books we have read and the author’s who wrote them. The further research I did into Stein and Balmain’s relationship is just one signifier that not only is Newman’s book important–its too short! Newman scratched the surface on a subject that is ripe for scholarly attention and there are undoubtedly many more Stein and Balmain-like relationships to uncover and explore.
My favorite part about this book: it inspired me–and will inspire you– to keep reading! I have already ordered books from Arthur Rimbaud, Colette, Gertrude Stein and the memoir of Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s lover. So get to reading and might I suggest starting with Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore?
AT LEFT, EDITH WHARTON (1862-1937). PHOTOGRAPHED AT HER HOME IN FRANCE WITH HER TWO PET PEKINGESE DOGS, 1920S. © GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE / ALAMY; CENTER, DJUNA BARNES US NOVELIST AND ILLUSTRATOR 1892 TO 1982 © PICTORIAL PRESS LTD / ALAMY; AT RIGHT, GEORGE SAND (1804-1876) © PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC / ALAMY
Quotes above provided are from the book: LEGENDARY AUTHORS AND THE CLOTHES THEY WORE by Terry Newman. Text © 2017 by Terry Newman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.